Repetition is an essential part of ingraining healthy messages in your children. Rituals provide that consistent replication. Rituals communicate messages not only by what you say or do, but, more powerfully, by the actions your children themselves take. Plus, when they engage in rituals, and experience their positive consequences, your children gain "buy-in" and ownership of the messages which is essential for their long-term adoption of those messages.
The "How much do I love you? Sooo much!" catchphrase that I mentioned in my last post has been an enduring ritual for us. At bedtime, our daugthers will even turn the tables and ask me the question and I answer. This give-and-take has become a part of our nighttime. It has gotten to the point where, thoroughly spontaneously at some point during the day, the girls ask me, 'Daddy, how much do I love you?" And I say, "Sooo much!" They respond with smiles and giggles. By making this ritual their own, Catie and Gracie have become active participants in our family's love and they learn how to express their love for me, my wife, Sarah, and each other.
Sign language gives children a wonderful conduit through which to receive and send messages of love, particularly for young children who haven't developed their language skills sufficiently to express their feelings. Also, because love is such a visceral experience, the physicality of sign language provides a direct path to the feelings associated with love.
As soon as Catie and Gracie began to understand language, but were still a ways away from talking, we taught them rudimentary sign language to help them communicate their needs, for example, signing for sleep, hunger, thirst. We also taught them how to sign "I love you." By around 15 months, both girls were signing back to us. I doubt they knew precisely what the signing meant, but I'm sure they got the idea that whatever we were "saying" was a good thing because of the "warm fuzzies" we communicated in our facial expressions and body language.
Sign language also enables children to send messages of love beyond arm's length and carry of voice. To this day, our girls use the "I love you" sign language as a means of expressing their love, for example, from our living room window to our driveway when Sarah or I are driving away or when they are Skyping with one of their grandfathers.
Martha, the mother of Amanda, missed her mightily when she returned to work after a four-month maternity leave. To ensure that Amanda knew that she was always in her momma's heart, Martha gave her a post-it note with some variation of a red heart and "I love you" written on it every morning for what is now more than five years. Amanda's grandmother, who cared for her while Martha worked, kept the notes without telling Martha and, on Martha's last birthday, Amanda (with her grandma's help) presented Martha with a handmade book of every single one of those post-its. Suffice it to say that a lot of tears of love were shed at that birthday party.
Steve and Caitlyn gave their twin boy and girl, Kyle and Sophie, soft and cuddly little "woobies" (another name for blankies) when they were born. Now four years old, Kyle's and Sophie's woobies are an ever-present source of comfort in their lives. These woobies also became a spontaneous and then ritualized expression of their love for their parents. As told to me by Steve, every night when they put Kyle and Sophie to bed, their twins would each take the most worn corner of their woobies and give their parents "woobie love," by brushing their cheeks gently with it. And just to show you the power of ritual, when one of the twins was upset, the other would offer woobie love as comfort or the sad twin would give him- or herself woobie love as a form of self-soothing.
Blake, the father of three, ages six, four, and two, isn't allowed to leave the house for work each morning until all three of his children do "Run & Hug." This morning ritual involves his kneeling down by the front door and each of his children standing about ten feet away, counting down three, two, one, go, and running into his arms for a hug and kiss. His kids have gotten very creative and modified "Run & Hug" to "Dance & Hug," "Hop & Hug," "Crawl & Hug," and many other variations thereof.
Ritual expressions of love shouldn't be exclusive to you and your children, but can (and should) also include your spouse and others as role models. A ritual that Sarah and I developed more out of our love for each other than by conscious decision is that every time we leave or enter our house, we give each other a kiss. We have similar rituals of love for extended family and close friends. Catie and Gracie see love being modeled in these different ways with different people and get the message that love is something that can be appropriately expressed toward others for whom we share deep feelings of affection.
As I just suggested, it is a very positive message to expand the circle of love beyond that of your immediate family. One of our neighbors, Nancy, has a ritual for her son that every Sunday, he "Skypes" his grandparents on both sides of the family. This video-calling technology has been a boon for distant grandparents who are able to remain much more connected to their grandchildren with the combined visual and voice media. It allows children to build and maintain loving relationships with extended families whom they might not see often. And it has the added bonus of sending the meta-message that family is important.
Beyond the ritualized expressions of love, spontaneous expressions of love also send a dramatic message to your children. Unexpected words of love, hugs and kisses, or even just a gentle and reassuring touch can cause children's eyes to brighten, smiles to widen, and moods to rise. You can think of these surprising shows of love as sort of reverse scares. Let me explain. You know how it feels when someone jumps out from behind a door and yells "BOO!" Your heart stops for a second, then starts racing, and adrenaline surges through your body. The unexpected expressions of love create an inverse sudden reaction of calm, joy, and love. Your unanticipated love is like a special treat that your children didn't expect and, in the surprise, is especially sweet.